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Freed Up to Play in K.C.

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March 9, 2011
Gary Pine

AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific is back in the 32-team NAIA Men’s Basketball Division I Championship Tournament for a 16th consecutive year, and the Cougars will face Freed-Hardeman University (Tenn.) in an opening round game in Kansas City’s famed Municipal Auditorium on Wednesday (March 16) at 10:45 a.m. (CDT).

The NAIA national office released first-round pairings and the entire 32-team bracket today, giving the Cougars a No. 8 seed. Azusa Pacific, which enters the tournament with a 28-5 record, earned an automatic berth into the tournament by advancing to the championship game of the Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament.

Freed-Hardeman out of Henderson, Tenn., which is 100 miles east of Memphis, is 22-11 on the season and earned an at-large big into the NAIA Tourney after falling to Martin Methodist University, 69-66, on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in last night’s TranSouth Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament championship game.

Considered the most difficult tournament to win, the NAIA Championship Tournament brings 32 teams to Kansas City, Mo., for 31 games in 7 days, capped by the national championship game Tuesday, March 22. The eventual champion must win 5 games in 7 days.

A year ago, Azusa Pacific came within a whisper of that elite 5-wins-in-7-days feat, advancing to the NAIA title game where it fell to Oklahoma Baptist University, 83-82, when Marshall Johnson’s possible game-winning shot was waived off as too late after officials reviewed TV replays. Should the Cougars slip by Freed-Hardeman they have a chance to face OBU in a Friday (March 18) second-round rematch of last year’s championship game.

Azusa Pacific is one of the most experienced NAIA Tournament teams in this year’s field. The Cougars returned 9 players from last year’s 28-10 team, and 5 current Cougars have played in 6 or more NAIA Tourney games in their career.

“There is nothing normal about 32 teams in one place and the games coming one after another,” said fourth-year Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “Our tournament experience at least helps us with established traditions and rituals that can create a sense of normalcy about something very abnormal.”

This year’s set of Cougars are paced by All-GSAC senior center Reggie Owens, a Memphis native who is second in the conference in both scoring (16.3 avg.) and rebounding (7.9 avg.) and is coming off his 11th double-double of the season with a career-high 26 points to go along with 11 rebounds in last night’s 95-87 setback to Concordia University in the GSAC Postseason Tournament title game. A year ago, the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Owens was named All-NAIA Tournament after averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds in 5 games in Kansas City. He hit the game-winning shot in the Cougars’ opening round victory over the Campbellsville University.

Johnson, who has appeared in 6 NAIA Tournament games including one as a 2009 freshman when he scored a career-high 25 in a first-round game vs. Mid-America Nazarene University, is currently second on the team in scoring (13.3 avg.). Senior forward Danny Nugent rounds out the Cougars’ All-GSAC trio and is third on the team in scoring (10.3 avg.) and second in the NAIA in 3-point shooting (.472/50-for-106).

“I feel good about where we are as a team,” said Leslie. “We lost a tough game to one of the best teams in the nation last night, but I think we still have a lot of good basketball left in us. We’re a healthy and deep team. I feel pretty good that our body of work this season has prepared us for this moment.”

Freed-Hardeman, which is making its second NAIA Tournament appearance and its first since 2009, is led by 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Kyle Teichmann, who leads the TranSouth in scoring (19.9 avg.) and has 11 double-doubles on the season after registering 16 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in last night’s game vs. Martin Methodist. Junior guard Anthony Sampson tops the TSAC in assists (4.9 avg.).

The Lions have put together a trio of 6-game winning streaks this season, including one that was snapped last night. They finished 12-4 in the TranSouth, good for third place.

“Freed is hot right now,” said Leslie. “It took a buzzer beater to end their 6-game winning streak. Teichmann is a fantastic post player. They have solid guard play and can shoot the ball. They have all the ingredients of a team that can have success in Kansas City. We have our work cut out for us.”

Azusa Pacific in 28-18 all-time in NAIA Tournament play and has advanced to at least the quarterfinals in 9 of the past 13 years.